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His Unflagging Loyalty Rewarded

Salmon, a key to the glory of last fall and a link to Angels' inglorious past, will help raise championship banner tonight.

March 30, 2003|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

Tim Salmon is something of a team historian, witness to a season of glory and link to the preceding four decades of frustration.

His first manager, Buck Rodgers, played for the first edition of the Angels, in 1961. The coaching staff when he was a rookie included Angel heroes Rod Carew and Bobby Knoop -- and Jimmie Reese, fungo-hitting wizard as an octogenarian and beloved counselor to Nolan Ryan and Jim Abbott. The roster of teammates from then until now includes Chuck Finley and Mark Langston, Wally Joyner and Dick Schofield, Gary DiSarcina and Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson and Troy Percival, Darin Erstad and Troy Glaus.

As the Angels celebrated their first World Series championship last fall, it was Salmon who waved a cowboy hat to the sky, in tribute to legendary owner Gene Autry. And, as the Angels unfurl the championship flag tonight, it will be hoisted atop the pole by Autry's widow Jackie -- and by Salmon, representing the players who achieved last season and the ones who dreamed in years past.

He is the perfect choice, but he almost defaulted on the honor.

Salmon nearly walked out on last year's party before it started. He considered retirement last April, when he fared just as miserably as he had in a wretched 2001 season.

"I don't know if I could have handled another full season like the one I had the year before," he said.

Skills erode gradually for some players, rapidly for others, and the latter was an alarming possibility for Salmon two years ago. He batted .188 in May, .198 in June, .194 in July. He hit half as many home runs as usual, drove in half as many runs.

The Angels blamed injuries. He was free from injury last spring, batting .404. The Angels beamed. His old bat speed was back.

Then the season started, a frightening rerun of 2001. In his first 15 games, he batted .135. Manager Mike Scioscia dropped him in the lineup, then benched him for a day.

Scioscia told Salmon -- and anyone else who asked -- that all that was missing was confidence and patience. Salmon wasn't sure how much he had of either.

He did not bring up the prospect of retirement to his manager, or to any of his teammates. He did stay up late with his wife, Marci, talking and wondering whether retirement was the answer.

"Any time you're at a moment of despair and frustration, you'll say all kinds of things," he said. "You've got all kinds of crazy thoughts going through your head. You're asking yourself if you can take much more of it.

"I've never walked away from anything, but my frustration level was at an all-time high. Whether I would have followed through, I don't know."

It would not be unprecedented for a player to be washed up at 33. But, Salmon decided, it was too soon to give in.

He always struggled in April, so nothing new there. It always took him a little extra time to adjust to night games, after a month of day games in spring training. And, in those first few games of the season, the Angels faced Bartolo Colon, C.C. Sabathia, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Salmon wasn't hitting, but no one else was, either.

If he still wasn't hitting in June and July, Salmon told himself, he would face a decision -- if the Angels had not already made one for him. But, starting April 24, he hit three home runs in seven games. His average reached .200 on May 10, .250 on May 14, .270 on June 5.

He finished at .286, one point above his career average. His fellow major leaguers voted him comeback player of the year.

He homered in the game that clinched the Angels' first playoff berth in 16 years, in each of the first two postseason victories -- against the New York Yankees, no less -- and twice in the first World Series victory in franchise history.

"They've had some Hall of Famers that have played here, some great players like Bobby Grich, Brian Downing and Rod Carew," Salmon said. "They had some great clubs when Mr. Autry was around, probably good enough to win a World Series.

"For so many years, we looked at ourselves and wondered whether we could be that good of a club -- and, if they couldn't do it, how would we? But we've finally etched our own history, and I'm just so proud to be a part of the club that finally did it."

In the deliriously happy hour that followed the final out of the World Series, Salmon invited Marci inside the clubhouse, for a hug and a kiss, and for a picture. The husband put one arm around the trophy and the other around the woman who supported him, listened to his fears and frustrations, supported him when he pondered walking away from the game he loved.

Salmon's four children traditionally pose for the family Christmas card. The kids will return this year, but last year's card featured that picture of husband, wife and trophy.

"We were soaked in champagne," he said. "I think it captured the moment pretty well."

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